Health Matters: Don’t Delay Well-Child Exams and Vaccines
Since March, our community has taken great effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Many of the normal routines of childhood have been altered. Most schools are doing distance learning. Playgrounds are closed. Family trips have been adjusted or cancelled.
Nationally, there has been a noticeable drop in children showing up for routine vaccines and well-child checks—this concerns those of us in the local medical community. We agree with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that children still need their health check-ups, especially when those appointments include critical immunizations and monitoring of mental health, development, and growth. Our local clinics are dedicated to safely providing these services.
Globally, there has been a dramatic (and scary) decline in vaccines rates, placing children and communities at risk for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable infections. The CDC reports that the percentage of children younger than two years of age being up to date on vaccines dropped below 50 percent! If too few people get vaccinated, we will be at risk for outbreaks of debilitating and potentially deadly illnesses.
Did you know that measles is even more contagious than COVID-19 and in severe cases can lead to pneumonia and brain swelling? It requires a community vaccination rate of 93-95 percent to prevent outbreaks, which wasn’t a problem until recently. In recent years, we have had outbreaks of measles and pertussis (whooping cough) in California, and we are even more at risk now.
These diseases are extremely contagious and can be very serious, especially for babies and young children. While COVID-19 generally causes mild or no symptoms in young children, pertussis causes severe symptoms in young children. About half of babies with pertussis who are younger than one year of age require hospitalization. Children younger than six months are also at higher risk than older children for getting severe flu symptoms and requiring hospital treatment. In other words, many of the illnesses prevented by routine vaccinations are a greater threat to your child than COVID-19
As we head into fall and winter, rates of respiratory illnesses such as influenza will start to increase. In most years, hospitals reach capacity and can be overwhelmed during flu season—this is without the presence of COVID-19. Getting ill with the flu also makes the body more susceptible to other infections including COVID-19 and severe bacterial infections.
Without a coronavirus vaccine, one of the best tools we have right now heading into fall is the flu vaccine. Most years, the flu vaccine reduces the risk of getting the flu by 40-60 percent. Those numbers will make a big difference when there is a shortage of hospital beds. For people vaccinated against the flu who may still get the flu, the risk of requiring hospital care or developing complications is lower, and if hospitalization is required, the hospital stay will likely be shorter.
Regular checkups remain essential during this pandemic. In the last six months, rates of anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, obesity, and metabolic disorders (such as diabetes) have increased significantly. During routine checkups, children are screened for a number of conditions including growth problems, anemia, developmental delays, hearing and vision problems, and mental health concerns. Primary care medical providers help coordinate specialty medical care, reach out to the school district, obtain therapies, and provide general support for families during these challenging times. With the wildfires, it is more important than ever to monitor children's asthma and not to delay medical care for breathing concerns.
Our local clinics are taking great precautions to keep patients, their families, and the staff safe. We have separate waiting rooms for sick and healthy patients, and we schedule appointments to keep those populations separate from one another to minimize potential exposures. All employees follow proper precautions using personal protective equipment, and all visitors (patients and family members) two years and older are instructed to wear face masks. When appropriate, some visits are done by telemedicine.
I understand people changing their behaviors to reduce the risk of COVID-19, but I encourage all parents to recognize that the coronavirus is not the only threat (and maybe not the biggest threat) to their child’s health. Please do not put off regular check-ups. We want to help you keep your children safe and healthy.
Dr. Johnston is a pediatrician at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.